Warplanes: Reaper Finally Reaps Someone

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October 30, 2007: After nearly a month in Afghanistan, the first U.S. Air Force combat UAV, the MQ-9 Reaper (Predator-B) used its weapons for the first time. It fired a single Hellfire missile at a Taliban target. This reflects an effort to avoid civilian casualties, as well as a lack of targets in Afghanistan. The Taliban regularly use civilians as human shields, and when civilians get killed by a smart bomb in such situations, the Taliban make the most of it in their propaganda. So the air force is increasingly using "non-lethal weapons" on the Taliban. This usually involves a low, high speed pass by an F-16. Dispersing some flares (normally used to deceive heat seeking missiles) while doing so, often encourages the Taliban to move, or separates them from their civilian cover. The noise and light show of such a low pass is quite impressive. But the most impressive use of this tactic was the one time an adventurous B-1 bomber agreed to make such a pass when some troops were in trouble down below. The 180 ton bomber came down low and fast, filling the mountain valley with an ear-splitting roar. The pilot got chewed out when his boss found out, but the army troops, and the surviving Taliban, will never forget it.

Meanwhile, the Reaper is proving to be more useful for reconnaissance, than for dropping bombs or missiles. The Reaper officially entered service earlier this year, but the air force has not decided exactly how many to order. Those now in service are being put to the test, to see if they can replace F-16s in some ground support functions (reconnaissance and dropping smart bombs and missiles.)

The MQ-9s cost has doubled in the last few years, to about $18 million per aircraft. The 4.7 ton Reaper has a wingspan of 66 feet and a payload of 1.7 tons. Only nine are in service, with another five being delivered in the next year. Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, because it can carry over a ton of bombs or missiles. This includes the hundred pound Hellfire missile, and 500 pound laser or GPS guided smart bombs.

Reaper has a laser designator, as well as day and night (infrared) cameras. Reaper can stay in the air for over 14 hours and operate at up to 50,000 feet. It's sensors have excellent resolution, and are effective at high altitudes. While most of what F-16s (and F-18s) are doing these days is dropping smart bombs, and using their targeting pods to do recon for the ground troops, there are still things the jets can do that Reaper cannot. For example, the jets are often used to intimidate hostile gunmen or civilians. Coming down low and fast, the jets make a lot of noise, and a menacing impression. The jets can also maintain air superiority, keeping hostile aircraft out of the area. Reaper, in theory, has some capability in that area. You could hang some Sidewinder (heat seeking) missiles on a Reaper, and be able to attack hostile helicopters. It's less likely that anyone would try to mount a machine-gun pod on a Reaper. Low level strafing attacks are too risky with a UAV being piloted by someone on the other side of the planet.

 


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